Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, shared a personal account of some her experiences as a student at Central High School to an UALR audience last night as a part of the Office of Campus Life’s celebration of Black History Month.
Ms. LaNier provided just enough description and detail to acquaint listeners with a period of time that most were yet born or too young to remember. The oral narrative coupled with excerpts from her book and a video clip allowed us to see the world through the lens of a 14-year-old who just wanted access to the public education to which she was entitled.
In addition to the inhumane treatment she and eight fellow African American students were subjected to just to enroll, she lamented of the many extracurricular activities that she also was denied while at Central High. Not being able to participate in the full life of the school had a profound effect on her and made it even more difficult to adjust to college.
Even though she faced racism in her undergraduate studies at Michigan State, Ms. LaNier remarked that it paled in comparison to what she encountered in Arkansas. However, she persevered, and like her Little Rock Nine brothers and sisters became successful in attaining a higher education and having productive careers.
It’s interesting to note that only in recent years has she felt comfortable talking openly about her teenage life. In fact, she feel compel to be more public about her role in making American history only when her children aged and became exposed to the story through books.
During the question and answer period, I asked her to share more about the influence of Daisy Bates in the desegregation of Central High. She expressed that not only was the Bates’ house a meeting place for organizing the Little Nine group, but that Mrs. Bates was a genius at being able to capture the national media’s attention about what was occurring in Little Rock. It was to the extent that Ms. LaNier said that there were two primary topics dominating world news in 1957: Russia’s Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, and Little Rock Central High School.
Today Ms. LaNier uses her voice frequently to speak to audiences across the country about the importance of continuing the fight for racial justice. Whereas she believes that there have been considerable strides made in race relations, the playing field remains unequal in her eyes. Ms. LaNier holds steadfast to the notion that education is the key to progress and in keeping the country’s competitive position globally. In our brief exchange following her speech, she told me that educational institutions must become serious about graduating more African American students in particular—a cause near and dear to her heart.
Dr. Michael R. Twyman
Director, UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity